Beethoven: String Quartets (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Emerson Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 447 075-2
The Beethoven quartets have always been at the cote of the Emerson Quartet’s repertoire, and over the years it has honed its playing of these works to a fine degree. Here in this new set we encounter exaltation, immaculate playing and ensemble precision of awesome proportions (typically, first and second violinists often swap their roles). The Emerson is perhaps the best rehearsed quartet of our century. The playing is not only flawless technically, but reflects a careful study of the music, both formally and in the players’ intense preoccupation with textual matters. The recording of this set is also spectacular.

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The performances give the impression of having been forged in white heat, such is the breathless intensity of quick movements and the leashed power of the adagios and andantes. If there is one faint criticism to be made of these superb interpretations, it might be that this continuous intensity can be rather fatiguing – but perhaps this is what Beethoven wanted. And as for the quartet’s technical prowess, sample the final fugue in the third Razumovsky Quartet (Op. 59/3): it has to be heard to be believed.

If you are seeking less high-powered readings of these quartets, try the Quartetto Italiano (now a rather old-sounding recording on Philips). For the late quartets, you might sample the Lindsay Quartet (ASV): diere is something to be said for the quiet, radiant beauty of its vision of the Cavatinafrom Op. 130.

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But on the whole it is difficult to surpass the Emerson’s overall achievement – a real landmark.